To the surprise of even city council members, the Petaluma Police Department dusted off a little-known law last week in an effort to educate the public on the city's regulations regarding toy guns. The move comes in the wake of the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy, who reportedly mistook a replica airsoft gun the teen was carrying for a real AK-47 assault rifle.
The shooting sparked a handful of phone calls from concerned citizens seeking information about the laws regulating airsoft guns, which caused the Petaluma police to announce the ordinance in a press release last week.
The obscure Petaluma Municipal Code 10.56 outlaws the discharge or public display of any firearms — including airsoft and BB guns — within city limits. Firing any type of gun within Petaluma's boundaries is a misdemeanor criminal offense punishable by a $75 to $500 fine and up to six months in jail. There are exceptions to the law that cover police officer's weapons and legally licensed firearms being used in self defense.
The ordinance also makes the public display of any type of firearm or toy replica illegal, other than transporting legally owned guns within the trunk of a vehicle. Petaluma police officers have ticketed individuals for firing BB guns and airsoft rifles within city limits in the past, but Petaluma Police Sgt. Jim Stephenson said it's a rare occurrence.
"We've received a few calls from rural residents, complaining of people firing airsoft guns and pellet guns over the past few years," he said, unable to remember how many times officers have responded to such reports in recent years. "We've cited a couple people for it, but it hasn't happened too often."
Mayor David Glass said he supports any law aimed at reducing the damage done by firearms — real or fake.
"The Andy Lopez situation was a big warning flag," said Glass. "It could have happened anywhere. In terms of the risks versus rewards of toy guns, there is very little reward for having a toy that looks so much like the real thing. Any laws we have that make police officer's jobs easier, I'm in favor of."
Petaluma City Councilmember Mike Healy, who has been on the council intermittently since 1998, said that he was unaware of the city law until last week.
"I have no idea what the background was, or why the ordinance was passed, and the language isn't terribly clear," said Healy. "But the city's code does address the issue of displaying or discharging any type of gun in public."
Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly said that while the language of the ordinance — which goes so far as to outlaw anvils, cannons and missiles — is a little old-fashioned, it fully regulates the use of real and toy guns.
"I think it does make sense the way it is written," Danly said. "It focuses more on discharge than possession. It could certainly be updated, as it's part of an evolving area of law. But it gives the police means of enforcement, still allows for the sale of these types of weapons and has enough loopholes to cover constitutional rights."
The sale of firearms — real or fake — from appropriately licensed dealers and shops remains legal in Petaluma, "since the ordinance does not address the matter," Danly said this week.